May 31 – Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman

Posted on May 31, 2018

Born on this date in 1819, on Long Island in New York, Walt Whitman earned money teaching...and typesetting for newspapers and writing for newspapers and even running a newspaper...and serving in the government as a clerk...and as a volunteer nurse serving the Union Army in the Civil War 
But none of those occupations are what makes him famous.

It's not even the full-length novels he wrote, nor the essays, nor the self-help guide called Manly Health and Training.

It's his poetry.

During Whitman's lifetime, his poetry was very controversial, and many people criticized it harshly. However, some really famous and respected people - like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau - thought Whitman's poetry was brilliant. One reason it was special - one reason it was loved by some and hated by others - is because he broke the usual traditions of poetry. He used a lot of free verse, and his poetry was more like prose than that of other poets in his lifetime. He used unusual symbols, such as rotting leaves, tufts of straw, and bits of debris; he talked about themes such as death in an unusually open, frank way; and his narrators tended to be common people rather than oh-so-heroic figures.

Here are two bits from a longer poem: 

Starting From Paumanok:  
There Was a Child Went Forth

There was a child went forth every day, 
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became, 
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day...or for many years or stretching cycles of years. 
The early lilacs became part of this child, 
And grass, and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird, 
And the March-born lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, and the cow's calf, and the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pondside...and the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there...and the beautiful curious liquid...and the water-plants with their graceful flat heads... 

These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes and will always go forth every day, 
All these become of him or her that peruses them now.

The following poem was written to rally people to the Union Army during the Civil War: 

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have 
      now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering
      his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers
      must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers' bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would
      they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man, 
Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's entreaties, 
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the  hearses, 
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow. 

The following famous poem was written when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated after the Union won the Civil War. The poem is a metaphor, as if America were a ship at sea, and President Lincoln were the captain. Here is the start of the poem: 

O Captain! My Captain!
This Walt Whitman poem was
key in the Robin Williams movie
"Dead Poets Society."
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; 
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won; 
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, 
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring: 
But O heart! heart! heart! 
O the bleeding drops of red, 
Where on the deck my Captain lies, 
Fallen cold and dead.

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